The State of the Language

‘For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat


THE irrepressible and irresistible A. P. Herbert — he of Punch and Parliament, Holy Deadlock and that salutary book What a Word — has just paid his respects to the historic motto of Trafalgar. Nelson’s hoist of flags said to the fleet: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Mr. Herbert performs the public service of putting this watchword into War Department or Foreign Office English, or what Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in a very celebrated lecture branded as Jargon. Nelson, deftly jargonized, reads: ‘England anticipates that as regards the current emergency, personnel will face up to the issues and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation groups.’ This revised version, or all of it but the rather British ‘face up to,’ is a perfect miniature of the prose style that we find in vast and growing numbers of American documents. It saturates state papers and the exchanges of diplomats. Lawyers’ letters are as full of it as they can hold; so are thousands of pages of the Congressional Record. Conventions of those who call themselves educators wallow and drown in it, and most sociologists would think it infra dig. to transact their affairs in any other idiom.

Pretentious circumlocution is, of course, no new thing: only the degree of its prevalence is new. A generation ago, during the United States Army’s mopping-up campaign in the Philippines, Ambrose Bierce took the trouble to show that it is sometimes a high crime not to have an instinctive mastery of the periphrastic or Robin-Hood’s-barn style. A staff officer issues oral instructions: ‘I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me.’ Asked for an age limit, he sets it at ten years. Naturally he is cashiered for barbarism. He would have remained, according to Bierce, ‘a popular hero and an ornament to the active list of the army’ if only he had issued a written order in this form: —

It is thought that it will be to the advantage of the expedition in point of celerity of movement, and will simplify the problem of supply, if the column be not encumbered with prisoners. The commander of the expedition will not be unmindful of the military advantages that flow from the infliction of as many casualties upon the enemy as is practicable with the small force that he commands and the evasive character of the enemy; nor will he overlook the need of removing by fire such structures and supplies as are incompatible with the interests of the United States. . . . No person engaged in hostilities against the United States will, of course, be suffered to plead sex or age in mitigation of such mischances as the fortunes of war may entail, provided, however, that no noncombatants of either sex under the age of ten years shall under any circumstances be put to death without authority from these headquarters; the traditional benevolence of the American army must not be impaired.

The remark that the general’s alleged order to make the island a howling wilderness was ‘brutal exceedingly’ draws the crushing reply: ‘Certainly it was. An officer of refinement and taste would have said: “It will be found expedient to operate against the enemy’s material resources.”’

The great unfenced and horizonless range of this sort of thing in the twenty years past has been the pseudo-science of psychology; with which we must include its various ramifications from ‘personnel research’ up to psychiatry, which is psychology wearing an M. D. At my elbow is The Law of the Organism. A Neuro-Social Approach to the Problems of Human Behavior, a reprint from the American Journal of Sociology. It is by Dr. Trigant Burrow, a psychiatrist of great prestige, head of the Lifwynn Foundation, author of The Biology of Human Conflict, and a patently sincere, earnest, and benevolent person. In his pamphlet I read:

Phylobiological investigations give indication that . . . the cause of the disorganizations occurring individually and socially among us is to be found in the organism’s misguided efforts of adjustment in relation to this fanciful, politicosocial principle that has been overtly substituted for the basic proprio-social principle governing the behavior of man’s organism as a whole.

What do you think Mr. Herbert would make of that dainty bit of code, if anything could persuade him to grapple with it? Possibly something of this sort: ‘Group experiments suggest that we get out of tune with ourselves and our fellows because, instead of following our innate bent, we foolishly strain ourselves trying to live up to what is expected of us.’ But any such form of statement would never, never do. It would instantly shrivel the idea into one of those mere truisms that persons of sense easily accept without any phylobiological investigations. Workers in the social and mental sciences naturally want to think of themselves, and want us to think of them, as the custodians of something pretty special and inaccessible in truth truth with a fence around it. The rest of us pardonably suspect that half the time they can’t be sure themselves whether there is really much to the fence but impenetrable language.


BEATEN STIFFLY. A Chicago concern called Plee-zing, Inc., distributes Plee-zing corn flakes in a package with printed recipes on its wrapper, one of which begins: ‘2 egg whites beaten stiffly.’ This direction, possibly written by a Japanese schoolboy, will make perfect sense to those who know what it is to be struck dumbly, run raggedly, caught shortly, knocked flatly, or beaten blackly and bluely.

ONCE MORE ‘CONTACTED.’ An anonymous postcarder avouches that he lately heard over the radio, in an interview with one of the notables of exploration, this question: ‘Roughly speaking, Mr.—, how many icebergs have you contacted?

-IZE. Among the incredible linguistic atrocities that have resulted from throwing this useful suffix about, hit or miss, Mr. Mencken lists bachwardize, customize, picturize, and scenarioize. The Leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society, Mr. W. Edwin Collier, writes me: ‘You might like to add solidarize to your collection of brave new words,’ and documents the remark with a letter to the (New York) Nation in which Mr. David Martin of Toronto says: ‘If Premier King today is prepared to solidarize Canada with Britain and France, he is only following the American lead.’ The now familiar slenderize has had a long enough vogue to develop both transitive and intransitive uses: certain devices, exercises, or nostrums are supposed to slenderize the user, and the user also slenderizes by using them. (‘Shall we have her to luncheon, or is she still slenderizing?’)

It has remained for a brand of ‘beauty aids’ called Maybelline (‘attractive purse sizes at all 10ȼ stores’) to boost -ize to a new height — or a new high — on the leverage of a pun. Glamor-ize today, Maybelline exhorts us (in questionable spelling) in the Sunday rotogravure section of the New York Times the essential clue being the circumstance that. Maybelline is a group of cosmetics for the eyes and environs.